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Will Low-Income Communities Be Left Out Of California’s Clean Energy Transition?

A worker helps to install solar panels onto a roof in the Van Nuys section of...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: A worker helps to install solar panels onto a roof in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles, Aug. 8, 2019.

Starting next year, all new homes built in California must include solar panels. The building mandate goes into effect in January, but it's already raising affordability concerns.

The mandate applies to all low-rise residential, including single-family homes and apartment buildings with three stories or less. While the cost of the solar panels will be picked up by developers, it will be tacked on to the upfront cost of a home.

Joseph Kaatz, an energy expert at the University of San Diego's Energy Policy Initiatives Center, says the state estimates the cost of installing panels to be at least around $8,000 but can go as high as tens of thousands of dollars depending on the size of a home.

"So, the Energy Commission has a couple perspectives on this," Kaatz said. "But, they think that pencils out over time because of the cost savings of electricity over the thirty-year term of that solar panel on the house."

The state says that it could amount to around $19,000. Kaatz says it’s part of state efforts to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals in different areas, like transportation.

Homebuyers will be given the option to buy the panels, lease them or get their energy through community solar. Some buildings, like those under lots of shade, will be exempted.

Reported by Shalina Chatlani

An already expensive housing market

While the mandate helps the state move toward environmental goals, some are concerned it will make it even more difficult for people to afford homes.

In Southeast San Diego neighborhoods, the nonprofit GRID Alternatives installs solar panels for low-income families at no cost.

Clovis Honoré, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, works for GRID Alternatives. He says the new solar mandate is a good idea overall, but he's worried that low-income communities will be left out of the clean energy transition.

“Oh we’re gonna put solar on new homes, we’re gonna put solar on up to three-story apartment buildings. But where will they be built, who will be able to access them?” he said.

Kaatz says the CPUC is aware of that.

“Where we’ve seen the initial uptake was higher-income people installing these panels, so there is an equity question around that the state is grappling with," he said. "The state wants more of these systems deployed, and they want to hit these segments of existing buildings."

Will it help the state meet environmental goals?

Kaatz says it was easier for the state to target new construction for a solar mandate before existing buildings. But the state does subsidize some programs, including GRID Alternatives, that install solar energy in multi-family homes, he said.

But, Honoré said, while their work is key to making clean energy accessible, it’s not enough to close the clean energy divide between the rich and poor.

"When you talk about new construction, whether it’s single-family or three stories, you’re talking about doing that construction in neighborhoods that are typically going to be priced out of even the rental range of lower-income and communities of color, communities of concern," Honoré said.

Zillow estimates the median price of a home in San Diego to be $637,900. And just this month, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that a 200-foot shed in University Heights is being rented for $1,100.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

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